Earlier today I was having a business breakfast, Israeli style: cafè hafuch and an open lap-top to peruse artwork in a coffee shop. When I mentioned that I was on my way to the GA to my art colleague, she said “what for?”
Indeed, I asked myself the same question. The GA is the grand slam of Jewish organizational life, with the heavy hitters of the Israeli establishment from politicos to soldiers, from journalists to educators, and from CEOs to students, every stripe of mover and shaker meeting eye to eye with the top echelons of the organized Jewish world of North America. This event is a rarity, occurring only once in a five year cycle in Jerusalem. With existential questions such as a nuclear Iran at the forefront of the agenda, and with cries for plurality in religious worship not far behind, what could a blogger on culture and the arts come away with?
A quick glance through the schedule showed that there was little to come for. Zionism? yes. Start-ups? yes. Medical care? Haves and have-nots? Great Jewish Thoughts? Yes, yes, yes. Lots more than that, yes, but little in the realm of support or overt interest in the more nebulous needs like the visual arts and the spirit of the soul.
Lacking a target panel, I randomly chose one — a plenary session, aptly em-cee’d by Times of Israel editor, David Horowitz (think that plug will get this featured?), where he lightly interviewed various personalities and success stories in the format of a late-night TV show. These included Ziv Shilon, whose personal story of overcoming combat wounds, involving the loss of an arm and reduced function of his remaining arm, his insistence on returning to active service, followed by his recent decision to attend law school at the Inter Disciplinary Center in Herziliya, had everyone in the largest Binyanei ha Ooma auditorium on their feet in honor of this inspiring young man. Though others were very impressive, such as Daniel Birnbaum, the CEO of Soda Stream; Eleyezer Shkedy, the CEO of El Al; MK Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid and MK Shelly Yacimovich, the head of the Labor party and Oppostion Leader, no one else touched the attendees in quite the same way.
So there I was in the audience and my mind wandered. Thirty-four years ago I graduated law school, took my bar exam, boarded an El Al plane and joined my boy friend, now husband, in Israel, going to ulpan to learn Hebrew in the WUJS program in Arad. I would not say I had stars in my eyes, more like dust from the arid desert that surrounded Arad. I had so much to learn, so many gaps in my education to fill. Those were the first steps.
And I stayed. I am reminded of this piece of my childhood:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. (“The Road Not Taken”- Robert Frost)
It was in this very same building that I, as a WUJS alumna, attended a gathering for Israeli and American students in 1980. I don’t even remember what the conference was about. What I do remember is hearing the resentment in the voice of one of the Israeli students who challenged the audience with an impatient question about the burden that Israeli youth were expected to carry in the business of nation-building, a responsibility he felt belonged to all Jews, this a mere seven years following the Yom Kippur War. It had never occurred to me and it struck a nerve.
I was already a changed person, feeling my life, however simple, would have an added significance led here in Israel. Israelis, who were all anxious to go to the States and get a coveted Green Card to work there, were incredulous that two educated American kids would choose to come to Israel. When I would call my relatives to wish them holiday greetings, they would respond with “At od po?” (Are you still here?). No one expected us to stick it out.
Had I climbed back up the steps (yes, we actually had to climb steps to board the plane back then) on a returning El Al flight, instead of being a player in the great Zionist enterprise, I would have been a spectator.
Had I done the assumed, the obvious, the expected thing, I would have been in the GA audience as a delegate from abroad. I was likely to get a job as a young lawyer in a medium to large firm, sweat bullets till I made partner, maybe get to Israel as a participant in a Young Leadership Mission for UJA. I would have led a life along the typical trajectory. It would have been 34 years of organizational work, dinners, and tributes to the ones doing the lion’s share of the work of Zionism, like Ziv.
Had I done the expected thing, the trade-offs would have been obvious. Material success would be on a different standard than we live on, but as the years go by, it seems that we are a bit less needy and life here improves.
The things we cannot measure, the things we cannot track or enumerate, the things that are intangible- are the up side. My children, now all young adults, all were born in Jerusalem, they speak flawless, fluent Hebrew (not like their mother), and a reasonable English, too. They live and breathe Judaism in the most natural way. They know who they are, they know why they are here and they don’t need reminding. Their attitudes to being Jewish are so far off the recent Pew survey, that it is an understatement to say that it is “a different world.” The sad picture of young Jewish life that comes through entertainment films like “Jewtopia” which, though having some acerbically spot-on observations, mostly make me quietly cringe.
I exited the convention center with a group of delegates. We were indistinguishable. We all carried our bright green environmentally- friendly GA gift bags with printed material. We all were dressed nicely, though I had made a special effort to only wear locally purchased items in a spurt of economic patriotism. We all spoke English fluently. I share some of the same credentials on my CV. We all care passionately about Israel.
And then they headed straight for the shuttle buses to their hotels, and back the their lives abroad. And I was home in ten minutes.
And that has made all the difference. Sigh.